Nova Scotia

Cliffs of Fundy, Bonavista Peninsula named UNESCO Global Geoparks

Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador sites were given international honours on Friday for their geohistorical significance.

'I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit these outstanding places'

The announcement came from a meeting of the UNESCO Global Geopark Executive Board in Paris, much to the delight of those who have been working for years on this project. 3:14

Two sites in Atlantic Canada have been recognized as new UNESCO Global Geoparks, a designation that recognizes sites and landscapes of international geological significance.

The Cliffs of Fundy Global Geopark in Nova Scotia stretches along a roughly 165-kilometre drive, with about 40 designated sites from Debert to the Three Sisters cliffs past Eatonville, out to Isle Haute. The area is the only place on Earth where geologists can see both the assembly of supercontinent Pangea 300 million years ago and its breakup 100 million years later.

The Discovery Global Geopark in Newfoundland and Labrador's Bonavista Peninsula, a rugged coastline overlooking views of caves, arches and sea stacks, features fossils from what UNESCO describes as "one of the most significant transitions in Earth's history" — the rise of animal life.

WATCH | Cliffs of Fundy in N.S. bestowed UNESCO Global Geopark designation:

Nova Scotia's Cliffs of Fundy was once home to the ancient supercontinent Pangea and boasts unique geological and cultural sites. 1:58

The two parks are among 15 new Global Geoparks approved by UNESCO at meetings in Paris and announced on Friday.

"I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit these outstanding places," said Nikolaos Zouros, president of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network, who came to visit both sites last year from his home in Lesvos Island, Greece.

"We collect pieces of information about this unique book of the story of our planet. These do not belong only to the people of Canada but [are] an important piece of evidence for the whole of humanity."

Cliffs of Fundy Geopark

Beth Peterkin has just started her new role as the manager of the Cliffs of Fundy Geopark. She is pictured here at Five Islands Provincial Park. (Emma Davie/CBC)

While the announcement comes as a point of pride for those involved in Nova Scotia, it also signals the beginning of more work left to do to make sure the designation does what they want it to do — bring tourists to the area and boost the local economy.

"The beauty of the designation is that it immediately puts you on the world stage," Beth Peterkin, manager of the Cliffs of Fundy Geopark. "It will let us reach audiences we could never, ever reach on our own."

The New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy is already designated as the Stonehammer Geopark, located at the confluence of the Saint John and Kennebecasis rivers.

In Nova Scotia, Cumberland and Colchester counties brought together geologists, paleontologists, businesses, tourism operators, Indigenous communities and local people to bring the idea for a geopark to life.

This partnership is a first of its kind, said Christine Blair, mayor of the Municipality of the County of Colchester, and that teamwork is what made this idea into reality.

Five Islands Provincial Park is one of 42 sites in the UNESCO Global Geopark. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"To have two municipalities form an agreement, that has never happened in the history of the two municipalities before," she said.

"To have all of the communities and our First Nation community involved is very significant, because it's recognizing the whole of what we have to offer — and not just part of the whole."

The designation also comes ahead of a new Mi'kmaw cultural centre that will be built, in the next two to three years in Debert, says Donald Julien, executive director for The Confederacy Of Mainland Mi'kmaq.

"Our ancestors have been here for over 13,000 years according to archeological evidence. So it's very exciting for the Mi'kmaq, our cultural centre and the recognition is going to be fantastic," he said.

The Fundy region in particular, Julien said, is included in many legends about Glooscap, the most famous figure in Mi'kmaw culture who brought peace and restored balance to the world.

Donald Julien, pictured here at the Fundy Discovery site, is an executive director for The Confederacy Of Mainland Mi'Kmaq. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Julien said he hopes the UNESCO designation will help teach people about the history of the Mi'kmaq.

"At times in our history books and our histories, it sort of tended that we disappeared but we didn't. We're still here, alive and well," he said.

"This is probably history in the making. Everybody is going to benefit."

Discovery Geopark

The Discovery Geopark was recognized, in part, for the Ediacaran fossils that can be found in the area. These fossils — some of which can be accessed from the boardwalk in Port Union — are an estimated 560 million years old, and show some of the earliest multi-cell organisms.

"With over 20 taxa present, these enigmatic fossils record the oldest architecturally complex multicellular lifeforms, providing a window to study the preface to the Cambrian Explosion," wrote the UNESCO Global Geoparks Council in nomination papers. 

"The Geopark preserves a dramatic transition in Earth history."

Ediacaran fossils can be seen in the rock near the shoreline in Port Union, N.L. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Fossils for the Haootia quadriformis, believed to be the first example of muscle tissue in an animal, were found just two kilometres from Port Union's museum.

"For most researchers who come here, Newfoundland is the best place in the world to come to do the research, because we're so easy and accessible to the fossils," said Edith Samson, a long-time volunteer with the local Geopark committee.

"They're right at our doorstep."

Edith Samson holds a casting, or replica, of a fossil found near Port Union on Newfoundland and Labrador's Bonavista Peninsula. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Cliffs of Fundy needs help, councillor says

But in Nova Scotia, there's still more work to be done.

Donald Fletcher, president of the Cliffs of Fundy Geopark and the board chair, said the province and tourism sector will need to put money forward to make this a success story.

"I've felt over the years that we've sort of been neglected," said Fletcher, who is also a councillor for the Municipality of Cumberland.

"This area and we have so much to offer. And as I mentioned before, we've just basically taken what Mother Nature has put here and we're showcasing that to the world."

One of the next big goals for the Cliffs of Fundy Geopark group is to make sure each of the 42 sites have proper signage. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Fletcher said that includes fixing up the roads in the area, helping with signs and supporting their tourism sector.

"With the whole COVID thing, a lot of them are hurting," he said.

"This is big and people are going to come, maybe not so much this year, but they're going to come and see what we have to offer."

Peterkin said other work to be done includes clearly marking the geosites, updating guidebooks and maps, educating staff working in the parks about the designation, and recruiting volunteers.

"It's all about making the visitors feel welcome, so that they'll come back again and again," she said.

The cliffs near Cape d'Or showcase some of the highest tides in the world. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

But the promise of a lucrative tourism sector is also bringing hope to communities still reeling after a gunman in Nova Scotia killed 22 people on April 18 and 19, in what is now one of Canada's deadliest mass shootings in history.

"That will be with us forever. But we don't want to be remembered specifically for that event," Blair said.

"I believe we will all move forward together in the healing process. To have a positive announcement like we have at this geopark will be part of that; I truly believe that."

Peterkin says they're hoping to plan a celebration this summer once it's safe to do so with the Public Health guidelines around COVID-19.

"I think we have so much to offer with the mixture of the geology, the culture, the music, the arts, the local experience," she said. "Get your feet and hands dirty in the tide."

With files from Kayla Hounsell, Garrett Barry

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